Sunday, January 8, 2017

Witnessing Change

December was full of the joy of the holidays and simultaneous heartbreak. This month was really busy between accepting constant donations, meeting everyday needs, filling in for volunteers who had holiday plans, and staying open seven days a week for three weeks straight. It was an exhausting and fulfilling month. As the days grew shorter, I saw light elsewhere throughout the holidays.
                After deciding at the November board meeting that new men’s showers were definitely needed in the day shelter (there are at least ten showers per day in the two showers per bathroom), the process started in early December. It only took a little over a day to complete one shower, and during this process I received a call in the office from a woman who wanted to donate for specific projects, preferably larger projects, as she wanted to donate about five thousand dollars. I instantly thought of the showers and how they were much needed, but would put the day shelter a little over budget for the year. This was unlike anything I had encountered- a need met almost instantly. She was willing to work with us on these showers and was even willing to put in two new women’s showers after seeing the quotes from the contractors. As I was still in shock from all of this, I told the founder of this good news. He wasn’t surprised at all. There’s an incredible way things fall out of the sky for both staff and guests at the day shelter- if we are incredibly low on food, it magically arrives before a meal. If we are low on mugs, they arrive as the last one is being taken for coffee. Witnessing this sort of support and timeliness is something you can’t really believe until you see it. I thought staff was being overly casual when I started this year, saying things like “our needs have a way of being met around here.” Turns out, it’s true for the most part. Things seem to work out and when they do, I’m still in awe.
                As the winter rolled around in Boise, the colder weather meant more worry, more donations, more illness, and more work. In early December staff made the decision to stay open until 5pm, an extra half hour, as needed to keep people inside for as long as we could. The gratitude of the guests confirmed that this was the right decision. Even as the temperatures dropped and the snow settled in the foothills, people still slept in their cars, on the streets, and, as I learned from talking with some guests, in empty laundry rooms and vacant areas of certain buildings. There is one guest who slept outside in the cold temperatures of later December and came in after a hospital visit with confirmed frostbite on five of his fingers. He would lose at least four of those fingers, if not all five, in surgery in a couple of months. First he would have to go back for more diagnostic tests. As he was telling me this I didn’t ask why he had slept outside, as there are many reasons why people can’t or won’t enter into overnight shelters, but I instead thought about how one night could instantly take away half of his fingers. I was very aware for the rest of the day exactly how much I used my fingers and how different life would be without the use of them. This man came back the next day, very embarrassed, and asked if I could tie his shoes. With the nerve damage from the frostbite he couldn’t use his fingers to tie his shoes. I joked with him that I am always amazed at everything I do in my position on a daily basis- things like tying shoes, which I never would have thought of as part of the job. The truth was, I was extremely humbled sitting there, seeing the exhaustion and anguish on his face, and doing the simplest of tasks for him. He asked to borrow a marker to write a sign and I asked if he needed help writing it, as I had the time to do so. He nodded and I asked what he would like me to write. He said, “Broke with frostbite. Please help.” I wrote it out, thinking just how accurate it was and wondering if anyone would stop to help him out.
                Flying signs is a way of life for some guests, while others don’t participate at all. Either way, everyone has their opinion about it. There is a sense of discomfort about seeing someone flying a sign- the guests are very aware when people feel uncomfortable by the sight of them. It’s a weird mixture of helplessness, guilt, and sorrow seeing someone asking for a strangers help. I’ve thought a lot about the whole concept of flying signs and wondering how to encounter people who are. Of course, now, I know most of the people flying signs around town personally, so I usually just say hello and converse with them. One guest had a conversation with me one day about how humiliating it was to fly a sign. He said he felt such shame, knowing how uncomfortable people were by the sight of him. He said a lot of people turn away and wouldn’t even look at him or his sign. He said these interactions, if you could call them that, make him feel insignificant. He asked how he could feel any worth when others don’t even acknowledge him. Thinking about it on a larger scale, though, I know some people want restrictions on the money they give. They think, “Don’t use this for drugs, alcohol, or any momentary pleasures. Save it, use it towards housing and food. Maybe some shoes.” But the fact is that it’s difficult to put restrictions on cash. Giving a gift means not controlling how the gift is used, and that requires a certain amount of trust- trust in the ability for others, even strangers, to make their own decisions about what they need most to get by. I recently watched a documentary about homelessness and the woman filming asked a man flying a sign what he used his money for, implying the money he got from flying a sign. He asked her, in turn, what she used her money for. I liked this point a lot. People often feel they have a right to know what their money is being used for or what the poor are putting their money towards, where in reality finances are usually very private matters. If someone asked me about the details of my bank account, I would be taken aback. So little of people’s lives are private when they are homeless. Some are forced to have payees making financial decisions for them, forced to be passed by on the streets and stared at, share a room with thirty to fifty other people in a shelter, never having full quiet to sleep, being elbow to elbow in the day shelter where there never seems to be enough seating, especially in the mornings. People can get very irritated over lack of personal space, which is completely understandable. What is frustrating is that this usually leads to yelling and violence, aggression that comes from feeling smothered by others who most likely feel the same way.
                We held a card-writing session for guests in mid-December. This was an opportunity to use donated Christmas cards to write to family, friends, and anyone else guests wanted to connect with over the holiday season. Inevitably, staff, especially the founder, received cards from guests. He was talking with me about it one day, saying he wished people wouldn’t waste the cards by writing to him at Christmas, someone they see at least a few times a week. I saw his point, but I also mentioned that means they probably don’t have anyone else to write to. He saw my point and we hung the cards up in the office and around the facility.
                There were a lot of guests who are very sick in these winter months. Because some hold off on seeing a doctor or going to the hospital when they are sick, their cold or flu can quickly turn into pneumonia, bronchitis, or something more serious. There was a man found on a street corner earlier in the month unconscious. Another guest called paramedics and he has been in the hospital ever since, recovering from pneumonia, frostbite, and a few other complications. His fiancĂ©, another guest, has kept us updated about his recovery, and we are hoping for the best even though things weren’t looking good. There’s another, older man who I visited in the hospital who has lung cancer. He was on oxygen constantly and when he ran out, which happened once, we had to call paramedics to come with emergency oxygen for him. He’s doing well in the hospital, putting on weight despite going through chemo, and basking in the fact that he has a quiet room all to himself where he can watch movies he loves all day long. Seeing how happy he was to be in the hospital made me sad, as that’s a place not a lot of people want to be, but he thinks of it as a really great environment to be in, despite the pain from his illness. His memory is starting to go more now and he will eventually be put in long term care until he passes away. There have been some guests who visit him and care for him, but the hospital is out of the way and it’s difficult to get there on the bus. There are so many barriers and not a lot we can do, so I try to be there, especially around Christmas.
                For those who do pass without a home, there is a national event called The Longest Night where people who passed while experiencing homelessness are honored and remembered by those who loved and cared about them. There were ten names of people experiencing homelessness and three of advocates who passed last year, some very recently. There was a vigil held outside of the day shelter on the evening of December 21st. We read each of their names, said something about each and gave the opportunity for everyone present to speak if they wished, and had a meal together afterwards. The service was heartfelt, raw, emotional, and beautiful. It was nice to know that all across the country others were being honored in the same way.
                During my time at the day shelter I’ve learned not to take things too personally. Every day at service is very different and I can never expect anyone to treat me in exactly the same way each day. There are days when some guests love me and want to talk with me all day, a few days later those same guests could be quiet or yelling at me for something that happened. It’s an unpredictable environment. When I first started in August, there was a guest who was causing problems left and right and since we never actually saw her causing these problems, we only heard about the aftermath, we could never do anything except sit with her, talk with her, and ask her to please try and do better for everyone’s sanity (not in those exact words). A couple months ago she stopped using and slowly got clean with help from religion, a counselor, and her doctor. She has slowly changed over the last few months and I’ve seen her transform into a troublemaker who screamed at me daily with personal, emotionally charged attacks to someone who says to me over and over as I walk by “I’m doing good! I’m being good! I appreciate you!” Now during this transitional period, I would get reports from other guests that she was arguing with guests or instigating fights and I would go to check on her and she would repeat her mantra “I’m doing good!” in between yelling at other guests. I had to tell her that while she had been doing well, this was not a good moment. I told her I knew she was capable of better things than what she was currently involved in and I asked her to walk away from situations more times than I can count. Eventually, the process so slow I didn’t even realize it was happening, she really was behaving well. I was completely impressed with her, and I told her that. She had a really bad day one day when she couldn’t go to meet with her counselor, she had coffee spilled all down her back by accident, she had orange juice thrown at her at lunch, and after her third shower and change of clothes that day she was exhausted from crying and feeling terribly about everything that had happened. The staff and I told her “you had a really, really bad day. Tomorrow will be better.” For the rest of the afternoon, every time I walked passed her she smiled and said “tomorrow will be better!” I think of this resilience and positivity on my most difficult days. The true highlight for me, though, was when an older guest with memory loss was anxious and didn’t know how to get to the overnight shelter at the end of the day a few days before Christmas. I was looking around for someone heading that way who could wait with him to enter the shelter and help him through the check-in process. I asked a couple of people, but they either weren’t staying there or didn’t want to take him. Understandably, it was a lot to handle. I was about ready to walk him over myself when she looked up at me and asked what I was looking for. I told her, and she quickly offered to take him. I explained to the man that she would take him to the shelter and help him to check in. He agreed, making sure he knew what he should be doing, and she looped her arm in his and said “Okay, we can do this, let’s go now.” She informed me she would walk slowly so he wouldn’t feel rushed. I watched as they walked away, just taking in the kindness she had grown to possess. Not a lot of people could come full circle in this way and I feel privileged to experience something so profound. I’ve learned that, frustrating as it is, there can’t be a set number of chances for someone to make a change in their life. This woman might have tried to get clean countless times before and for some reason, this time, the fall of 2016, it’s sticking. She had been asked to leave before, she has gotten on people’s nerves countless times, she has manipulated situations and people, and even so, if everyone had given up on her she wouldn’t be where she is today. I think that’s pretty important.

                During early December I was fortunate enough to visit with extended family and my mother in Colorado. That was my Christmas, as I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas day at the shelter this year. For New Year’s Eve there were JV’s from Washington who visited to see the Potato Drop in Boise- we got to check that off of our bucket lists for this year! I’m so grateful to everyone who has supported me through the holidays and made my first Christmas away from home so warm and memorable. Happy Holidays from Boise!